Simon says, ‘Woo hoo!’ to Las Vegas, charity

High rollers receive Caligulan privileges from casinos, in return for gambling big money. Well, here’s one thing a whale couldn’t score.

Sam Simon — the philanthropist and co-creator of "The Simpsons" — once asked a Venetian VIP host if he could sing in "Phantom of the Opera" — in the central role as The Phantom.

"I lost a lot of money at The Venetian," Simon tells me. "My casino host comes up and he goes, ‘Listen, if there’s anything we can do for you …’ "

Simon asked to sing onstage that night. The casino host said no. Simon was bummed.

"In the Old Vegas, they would have done it."

Simon, 55, is one of Vegas’ most colorful tourists, coming here since he was 16. He claims he’s been "very lucky" to have won more money than he’s lost.

But when he has lost, man, has he lost.

A few years ago at Mandalay Bay, Simon’s friend Drew Carey convinced him to play $1,000-a-hand blackjack, for the sole reason that doing so would net them free food.

"I don’t know why he’s so naive," Simon jokes.

Carey ordered a burger. Simon wanted a grilled cheese sandwich.

"And we sit there — and we lose, and lose, and lose … $10,000, $15,000, $20,000 … I lose $75,000 sitting there."

Finally, they walked away.

"And they bring me the $75,000 grilled cheese sandwich, and he got a $125,000 hamburger," he says.

"How’s your hamburger!?" Simon asked Carey in an upbeat but frustrated tone.

Carey smiled wide and exclaimed, "It’s pretty good!"

Simon laughs and recalls his Vegas history. Years ago, he married the January 1997 Playmate Jami Ferrell at the Little White Wedding Chapel. They divorced soon after. That wedding followed a seven-year marriage to actress and poker star Jennifer Tilly. (They’re still close friends). He got engaged again last year.

Simon is no longer a regular whale, gambling here only a few times a year. He loves poker. In 2009, he hosted and produced the Vegas celebrity poker match called "Sam’s Game" on Playboy TV.

But at this point in his life, he says, his favorite lifestyle activities in Vegas are taking in "the most sophisticated food and entertainment in the world, more than New York. Broadway is crappy children’s stuff. And here you’ve got these amazing, imaginative things. There’s nothing like it in the world. For God’s sake, look what you can do here!"

The soul of him is charity.

Simon, a vegan, runs the Sam Simon Foundation for dogs in Malibu. The foundation spays and neuters for free, and operates on sick dogs for free. It rescues animals from Los Angeles kill shelters, sends them to retirement homes for visits and trains some of them to be hearing dogs for people who are hearing-impaired.

"Our mission statement is to save the lives of dogs and enrich the lives of people," he says.

Simon is so committed to funding the foundation himself that when he set it up eight years ago, he created it in a method that, legally, it cannot accept any public donations. Not one dime.

But his friend Minnesota Sen. Al Franken has since passed a bill to partially, federally fund the foundation, so it now also teaches dogs to help war veterans who suffer with post-traumatic stress disorder.

When "60 Minutes" profiled Simon in 2007, it was a feature on the foundation, as you can see at SamSimonFoundation.com.

Next up:

"I’ve been watching the news lately — and the sorry state of the United States of America — so we are now starting the Sam Simon Foundation Feeding Families program.

"We’re gonna have a mobile food bank. Our goal is to feed 100 families in the city of Los Angeles.

"We will be feeding people and their pets. It will be 100 percent vegan. We will educate people about sustainability issues."

He hopes it’s up and running by late spring.

And he challenges other rich people to do more for charity. That is, yes, he lives life to the fullest, surrounded by celebrities, beautiful people and poker players.

And he is proud of his accomplishments, which go beyond "The Simpsons." He co-produced "The Drew Carey Show," "The George Carlin Show," "The Tracey Ullman Show," "Cheers" and "Taxi." He wrote for some of those shows as well as for the classics "It’s Garry Shandling’s Show" and "Barney Miller." (On the side, he managed heavyweight boxing champ Lamon Brewster.)

Yet, he swears nothing is as gratifying as hearing people tell him his foundation changed their lives.

"I could have bought a yacht. My neighbor buys Army surplus jet planes, and he flies them," he says.

"But there is nothing that would give me more pleasure than this. To me, this is a luxury."

His pitch to other rich people: You can go all-in on charity and still have fun.

Last month, Simon played in a tournament for the multiple sclerosis organization One Step Closer Foundation, centering around One Step’s leader Jacob Zalewski, who lives with MS, in a wheelchair.

Simon doesn’t just lend his name and cash to the charity. He and Zalewski, 27, are buddies, and Zalewski hangs with Simon while he gambles.

"I hit a $40,000 royal flush at the Rio" on a video poker machine, Simon says. "We found this machine at the Rio that, honestly, I think it is broken. I won’t reveal the exact location. But it can’t be right. So we always play that thing. We have a stack of jackpots!"

Doug Elfman’s column appears on Mondays, Tuesdays and Fridays. Contact him at 702-383-0391 or e-mail him at delfman@reviewjournal.com. He also blogs at reviewjournal.com/elfman.

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